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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
String Quartet No.1: From the Salvation Army (1896) [21:46]
Scherzo (ca.1907-14) [1:42]
String Quartet No.2 (1911-13) [26:59]
Blair String Quartet
rec. Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 5, 6, 8 March 2004.
NAXOS 8.559178 [50:19]



This is an accomplished pairing of the Ives quartets, which also gives us the brief sliver of a Scherzo, all 1:42 of it and written in Ives’s challenging idiom. The Blair Quartet knows better than to garnish the early student work with timbral and syntactical complexities it doesn’t possess. Though a work that would clearly have displeased Ives’s teacher Horatio Parker it does valuable service for the lay listener in revealing Ives’s development in his very early twenties.

His command of harmonious balance is evident here and the subtle employment of his trademark hymn tunes – or perhaps deployment is a more apposite word – is to me at least thoroughly convincing. Of course one can advance the idea that Ives was not yet fully Ives but I suspect listeners coming to this music with a blank sheet will find much here to enjoy. The infiltrated and transformed hymnal tunes certainly reinforce the quartet’s original title From the Salvation Army. But the scherzo shows some Mendelssohnian fleetness of finger. Maybe a parallel with early Bridge is not entirely misplaced though the two composers are in other respects very different. But what is unmistakeable is the indebtedness of the young Ives to Dvořák, whose freshness and immediacy must have proved so attractive – and whose folkloric elements must have strongly appealed to Ives and his own use of demotic. The use of the hymnal material is accompanied by a lightly cyclical plan.

The Second Quartet is Ives in his early maturity, written between 1911 and 1913. The perplexing and sudden conjunctions, conflations, revelations, quotations and miasmic cuts are all firmly evident. But the somewhat tersely romanticised opening doesn’t quite prepare one for the fulminous writing to come – unceasingly powerful chromaticism. Here the quotations abound in tense, often hallucinatory rapidity – the hymnal, quotations from other composers (principally Beethoven and Brahms) as well as brief allusions to Marching through Georgia and the like. The means at his disposal are powerful – tremolandi and intense unisons included - and they culminate in the superb final movement which ends with a three-against-one finale in which the gaunt, relentless cello ostinato repeatedly challenges his companions.

The recording is a touch distant; the hall used doesn’t sound to have been especially warm though this is a relatively minor matter. The playing is involved and involving and conveys Ives’s journey from late Romanticism to modernism with conviction.

Jonathan Woolf

see also reviews by Kirk McElhearn and Dominy Clements

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